Toluna’s Gutsiest Brands Podcast: Creativity in Constraints with Todd Kaplan

Published Dec 15, 2022


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Gutsiest Brands Podcast, Episode 15 with Todd Kaplan, CMO of Pepsi | GutCheck, A Toluna Company

Highlights from Episode #15 of the Gutsiest Brands Podcast

Check out the latest lessons from Toluna’s Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jess Gaedeke, sits down with Todd Kaplan, Chief Marketing Officer for Pepsi. They talk about their approach to marketing ‘unapologetic enjoyment’, what it means to stay agile in a world of changing emotions, and the importance of cultural context. 

Todd started his career journey as a simple towel boy at the Hilton in Huntington Beach. But his side internship in business certainly paid off, and he’s come a long way since then! Todd was originally inspired to go into business after watching the movie The Secret of My Success. “It’s a very cliché eighties [movie]. He is carrying a briefcase, wearing a suit like he’s very official. But something with that—the hustle, the initiative—that connected with me.” Todd’s business career has certainly been one to follow. Recognized by Business Insider as one of the “Top 25 Most Innovative CMOs in the World,” Todd has brought a disruptive, unapologetic, and culture-forward perspective to Pepsi that has been foundational to re-energizing the brand. 

Here’s what Todd shared with us about his experiences marketing a global super-brand… 

Takeaway #1 – Empathy Is Knowing Your Consumers

“I don’t know how you can be a marketer and not be empathetic,” says Todd. “That is literally our job, to better understand what’s going on in our consumers’ heads, hearts, lives, and feelings.” Why does it matter? Todd says we need to be empathetic “so we can provide good services that help address where [consumers] are failing, what they need, and how to connect all those dots.” When Todd started at Pepsi, he completely repositioned the brand based on consumer insight. His team found that “it’s easier to get [existing consumers] to drink one or two more Pepsis a month, rather than [persuading] somebody who’s this new young kid, who doesn’t participate in the category, to drink one.” Next, they dug deeper into the demographics to get to know their consumers even more deeply. The best marketing requires that we “empathetically peel at the onion a little bit and understand who people are.”

Takeaway #2 – Thinking ‘Culture–In’ vs ‘Brand–Out’

Between COVID and now a potential recession on the horizon, how does a leader for an industry-leading brand deal with changing tides? “I think it comes down to this idea of agility that I’ve always been preaching to the team, making sure that we keep our ear to the ground on culture and be very culture–first,” says Todd. “We call it ‘culture–in’ versus ‘brand–out.’ And it’s really this idea that as culture moves and changes, it doesn’t mean you need to change what you do because of it. You’re always going to be true to your brand point of view. So, then the question is, as the world changes, how does that point of view manifest in the new cultural context created by the world?” And context is key to marketing – in fact, Todd likes to refer to a saying from an old friend that ‘if content is king, context is God.’ Todd says, “the mediums are now mobile and moving and contextually relevant. And then you have the cultural macro landscape above it.” Recognizing all of these layers together might mean changing the way in which your message is conveyed, not necessarily the message itself.

Takeaway #3 – Look for the Lasting and Not the Shiny Objects

When Todd introduced the Pepsi brand to Web3 and NFTs, they didn’t understand the at first. But Todd knows when something is just a ‘shiny idea’ versus a lasting one. He says, “a lot of the stuff you’re seeing right now is shiny objects in this space of, ‘Hey, we’re having a thing in Roblox’ or ‘we’re doing a thing over here in Fortnite.’ It’s cool. And yeah, you can chase a headline, and you get out there first or early…but you need a real sustainable behavior around it. And that’s basically what we’ve been building right now.” Todd compares Pepsi’s approach to Web3 to when Facebook and Twitter first came on the scene. “[When] all these places came out, people didn’t have social media managers for brands. People weren’t making ads for these spaces. And now that’s like, ‘Hey, who’s your community management person? Who’s your person doing this and that?’ It’s all second nature now.” Todd hopes to keep Pepsi at the forefront of changing technology with their venture into Web3 and NFTs. 

Takeaway #4 – Leaders Stick by Their Ideas

If you asked Todd what his leadership style is, he would say “persistent.” After all, a good leader stands by their ideas and finds solutions where others force tradeoffs. “I can be annoying as all hell,” he says. “And even when things get killed, I kind of keep them in my pocket. I’m still going to bring it back at a later date and try to find the right way to package and resurface this. So, there’s a little bit of persistence. There’s a little bit of, I’d say, this entrepreneurial knack.”  

Takeaway #5 – Marketing Drives Business Results

Being the CMO of a major corporation is no joke. Yet, “It’s funny; a lot of people in the marketing community think, ‘you’re just making cool ads or doing some music stuff.’” But Todd explains there’s a lot more to it than that. “We are driving the business on this brand. I’m talking to Walmart, Kroger, and Dollar General. I am in a bunch of meetings. We have our divisions we work through to get all of our supply right and figure out how we’re showing up locally in the different markets. We have our scorecards and brand analytics. We have a business to run. At the end of the day, marketing is really the driving force of this brand.”  

Todd‘s Best Advice?

Given what’s going on with economic uncertainty right now, and inflation, a lot of companies, especially in CPG, are pressing pause on innovation. Todd thinks this is the opposite of what brands should be doing. “The more there’s constraints, the more there should be creativity. Creativity almost works the same way as a diamond in that the narrower and the tougher things are – I think it fuels creativity.” 

Keep Learning

Catch up on Jess and Todd’s full interview by listening to Toluna’s Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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